~~Nineteen~~

Victor Shepherd

1st Marine Regiment

1st Marine Division

U.S. Marine Corps

When North Korea invaded South Korea, I was working at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. Word soon went out that volunteers were needed as corpsman for the Marines. Along with five or six other guys, I placed my name on the list. In a few days we were on a plane headed to California.

It was during July when we arrived at Camp Pendleton, where we went through indoctrination and training. After which time, we traveled to San Diego to board the USS General Buckner for our voyage to Japan.

After about twenty days at sea, we finally arrived in Japan, and were taken by train to Camp Otsu. Here we went through training for an amphibious landing, which we learned later would be at Inchon.

Roughly at 1730 hours, on September 15, 1950, we disembarked our ship and loaded into AMTRACS for our trip to the beach. It was pure chaos; the sea was full with ships unloading troops, rockets were being fired at the beach, and the big guns of the battleships were firing at the shoreline.

We were supposed to have been in the third wave, landing at Blue Beach. However, due to the confusion from all the firing, and restricted visibility from the rockets, we were in the first wave to hit the beach. Actually, there was no beach, just an eight foot high seawall that we had to climb. Each AMTRAC’s coxswain had built a four-or-five foot ladder, which we used to climb over the wall. Our objective was to secure the beach and proceed to a small hill south of our landing site. We were to accomplish this by 2000 hours.

As we made our way toward the hill, we were approached by many civilians fleeing the fighting that was going on in the city of Inchon. I stopped to treat as many of the wounded civilians as I could; these were the first casualties of the war that I treated.

That first night we were all nervous, and closely watched for infiltrators. On the skyline I spied a figure and called to Gunny Dartez for instructions; he told me to keep an eye on it, so I spent most of the night with my carbine, and attention, glued to it. If it had moved, I would have shot its twig off—it was a bush. The following morning we headed toward Seoul, which was twenty miles away.

One day we had stopped to reorganize, when I heard that a couple men had fallen behind. Apparently, one of them was suffering from heat exhaustion and was being helped by another soldier. I could see them about two-hundred yards away, on the side of a hill, so I grabbed my medical kit and went to help. The guy wasn’t in that bad of shape, so I gave him some water and a salt tablet; then I sent him on to his unit. They hadn’t gotten twenty yards when a mortar round hit behind us; the blast knocked me to my knees. The soldier with the heat problem was peppered with some small stones and dirt, but wasn’t seriously injured. However, the other guy was injured. We got him back to his unit where his corpsman could take care of him. I returned to my unit, which was a mortar platoon.

On our way to Seoul we passed through the small town of Yongdung-po, and some small dikes, when I heard someone calling for a corpsman. Immediately, I ran into a burning thatch hut, but found no one. My buddies were yelling for me to get back to the line, since I had gone about thirty yards out in front of it. Not finding anyone, I was sure it was a North Korean soldier looking for a trophy—an American Corpsman. To avoid being called by an enemy soldier, we used a code word—lame duck—to call for a corpsman.

We were in reserve one day while in Seoul, and sitting on the sides of a wide street trying not to be targets for snipers. Suddenly, an officer came walking down the middle of the street waving and shouting words of encouragement to the men. Following him were some junior officers ducking and trying not to get hit by the bullets that were ricocheting off the street. I turned to the guy next to me and asked, “Who the hell is that nut?”

He replied, “That’s ‘Chesty’ Puller, a Marine’s Marine!”

That was the only time I ever saw “Chesty,” but, I’ll always remember it.

In Seoul we were set up on a small plateau, dotted with Korean houses. Our rifle platoons were higher up on the hill flushing out the enemy. Soon, two Koreans carrying a litter with a wounded Marine came down the hill. The officer accompanying them asked for a corpsman to transport the wounded soldier to the aid station. The Koreans carried the litter, and two Marines went along as guards.

The wounded Marine was Sgt. John Darakjian, who had thrown a grenade into a hole where a North Korean soldier was hiding. The North Korean threw it back out, and it exploded in front of the sergeant—blowing the side of his face off. Needless to say, he was in serious condition. I had to ask where the aid station was, and was told, “Back there somewhere.” We were instructed to go to the base of the hill, go left to the wide street that we could see in the distance, then go right on that street, and after a mile ask for directions. So, off we went.

It was late afternoon and we walked until it began to get dark. The whole time we were under sporadic sniper fire. Lucky for us, these guys couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn—even if they were inside with the door shut. When it got dark, the sniper fire intensified causing the Korean litters bearers to take off running; they left us. After the sniper fire had died down the two Marine guards picked up the litter and we were off again, with no idea where we were going.

Suddenly, I saw jeep headlights—in the distance—coming towards us. As the jeep approached, with my carbine ready, I stepped out in front of it. After identifying myself, I told the driver I had a badly wounded soldier and that I was commandeering his jeep—he agreed. We placed the litter on the back of the jeep and I sat beside it. Luckily, the driver knew where the aid station was located and drove us there. The two Marines went back to their unit, and the driver took me back to mine. When we arrived, they were digging in on the small plateau; I immediately fell sleep.

While in Seoul, we saw the bombed out palace, spent a night in a bombed-out prison, and were positioned near a hill that was covered with the bodies of butchered towns people. The North Koreans had butchered men, women, and children, most of which had their hands tied behind their backs.

Finally, we withdrew back to Inchon were we went into reserve. We bivouacked in an old factory for a few days, and regrouped. Then one morning we boarded ships headed for Pusan. Here we trained for a landing at Wonsan—in North Korea.

When we arrived at Wonsan, we stayed off shore for a few days sailing up and down the coast. The harbor was heavily mined and we had to wait for the Navy UDT teams, and minesweepers, to clear the harbor. By the time we went ashore, the South Korean Army had fought its way to Wonsan and beyond; our landing was a walk-on.

After a few days, we loaded onto trucks and traveled thirty miles to the small town of Mejon-ni, where we established a listening post. We were also to keep three roads, which met in town, open for our supplies. It got to the point that our supplies couldn’t get through, so they were dropped in by C-119’s or “Flying Boxcars.” They would come in at about one-hundred feet, or so, and drop the supplies and ammo by parachutes.

We were relieved at Mejon-ni, by the Army, and we returned to Wonsan. We stayed there for a short time in preparation for a seventy mile journey north—to the Chosin Reservoir.

Our uneventful journey, to the plateau, took us through the mountains via a narrow road. The higher we went, the colder it got. While we were at the Chosin, we saw temperatures dipping as low as forty degrees below zero, with winds up to 50mph. We came to a small cross-roads town called Hagaru-ri, located on the southern end of the reservoir. Item Company—the company I was in—dug in west of the airport and our mortar platoon was set up on the thinly stretched front line. The mortars required their base plate to be firmly placed in the ground. However, with the ground being frozen, the only thing we could do was to pile sandbags on them. We faced a low hill about three-hundred yards in front of us, and the rest of the company was on a hill to our right. To our left was a marshy area. Howe Company was located beyond it. The aid station was located about twenty yards behind us, on a road that curved around the hill to our right. It was set up in a large hut built into the hill. Since the aid station was that close to the front lines, the doctors were always dodging bullets that penetrated the walls.

The Chinese would attack during the night. We would hear the shrieks of their bugles and whistles, and then all hell would break loose. The following morning, after the battles, the fields in front of us would be littered with the bodies of fallen Chinese.

During one battle, we illuminated the sky with flares to see what was happening. Coming towards us were hundreds of Chinese soldiers dressed in dirty yellow, padded uniforms; it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Our mortars were firing so fast that the tubes began to glow a dark red. Gunners carefully sprinkled snow on the tubes to reduce the heat. If the tubes overheated they would deform, and become useless. To this day, I don’t understand how, or why, we were not overrun.

One day an officer asked for volunteers to defend East Hill until a permanent detail could be found. East Hill was located on the east side of Hagaru-ri, and there was a great need to get an occupying force on top of the hill; I volunteered to go. After we reached the top and spread out, a few shots were fired, some grenades were thrown, but no battle broke out. Several hours later we were relieved by—I believe—the British Commandos.

Word came down for us to leave and nothing was to be left behind that could be used by the enemy. Anything that had to be left, we destroyed or rendered useless. Bridges that we crossed, along with our ammo dump, was blown up.

The first town to the south was Koto-ri, where the Marines headquarters had been set up. The road to Koto-ri was in the middle of a wide valley that ran between low mountains. The Chinese were shooting at us from these mountains, so our Corsairs were called in to drop napalm on them. Before we could continue on, the road had to be cleared of the enemy. We were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Chinese; we had to fight every inch of the way.

We spent a night on a hill, near Chinhung-ni where we had to kick holes in twelve inches of snow to make a place for our sleeping bags. The aid station was set up in the valley below. That night the mercury dipped to thirty degrees below zero. The following morning I went about my duties, but around noontime I was having trouble walking. I soon found out that the liners in my snow pack boots had frozen to my feet. Hobbling to the aid station, not only was I able to get some clean socks, but I placed my feet up to a hot stove and let the ice melt off them. After washing and massaging them, I put on the clean socks. Lucky for me, my feet recovered quickly with no permanent damage.

As we continued our march south, the road at the power station in Funchilin Pass had been blown up—by the enemy. We had to hold up our march while the engineers repaired the road with bridge sections that were dropped by C-119’s. Finally, the road was repaired and once again we were on our way. As the road wound down the mountains, and through the valleys, there were signs of fierce battles—destroyed vehicles and dead soldiers. As we proceeded, the mountain sides became steeper and the valleys narrower. From the mountains we could hear gun fire and see Marines along the ridges firing at the enemy—they were keeping us safe. We continued on to Hungnam.

Arriving in Hungnam we were taken by ship to Pusan, from there we were trucked to Andong and put in reserve. My memory is hazy about anything after being at Andong, except in late April, 1951, at Hill 902.

We were driven to the base of a 3000 foot mountain called Hill 902. We needed to be in control of the hill before the enemy arrived. The entire 3rd BN moved up the hill as fast as we could. As soon as the leading units reached the top, the enemy opened fire. Our mortar platoon immediately placed a squad behind each of the three platoons. Sporadic fighting went on all day lasting into the night.

Off in the distance we could hear the muffled sound of artillery firing. Seconds later incoming shells screamed overhead and exploded in the valley beyond. The shells were coming closer to us each time they fired. We could hear the forward observer screaming, “No! No! I said up one-hundred, up one-hundred!” Suddenly, all hell broke loose as a barrage exploded to our right—into our lines—killing a number of Marines.

The following day we withdrew, because—I think—the South Koreans could not hold their position, so we were forced to move to a new line.

* * * * * *

I left Korea in June of 1951, and was transferred to a dispensary at the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Jacksonville, Florida.

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